One Billion Chinese Don’t Care

The WGA Strike has prompted a lot of commentary from guild members. Obviously for them it’s a momentous event; was I a guild member it would be important to me. Every industry is susceptible to over-estimating its importance and I think the insular nature of Hollywood exacerbates this. But the strike just isn’t that big of a deal to the overwhelming majority of people on the planet.

Unlike some have implied, the strike is not the conflict of good and evil. Rather, it is a price negotiation between producers and consumers. One of the writers asserted that they deserved pay similar to that of actors because without the writers there would be no words for the actors to speak. That’s true as far as it goes. But without actors there would be no one to speak the writers’ words. Both writers and actors are necessary but not sufficient to the industry, as are producers, gaffers, foley artists, etc.

My grandfather, mother, aunt, uncle, and sister all had to join unions for their jobs. I support workers’ right to choose to bargain collectively and certainly it brought some necessary changes in generations past. But I choose to bargain individually. In my profession, collective bargaining would only be advantageous for the lower half of the performers and, like most in my profession, I consider myself firmly in the upper half. My family’s experience with unions has been that they are like government: the actual cost far exceeds the theoretical benefit.

The idea behind a strike is to deprive the employer of revenue as a means to apply pressure in negotiations. Since this devolves to a game of financial chicken, unions maintain war chests to allow them to pay their members during a protracted strike. If the employers have a lot of liquid capital, it can take months to wear them down. During this time, not just the employers and employees are affected: the strike denies consumers access to the goods. Where the consumers identify with the initiator (employer in the case of a lock out or employee in the case of a strike) or where the goods are staples, an extended strike has little effect on the market.

But where the consumers do not identify with the initiator or where the goods are a luxury or even both, an extended strike can have long-term effects on the market. I was a big hockey fan, attending a dozen or so NHL games a year, until the 1992 NHL strike. Part of it was that I was irritated at having to change plans on short notice due to canceled games. Part of it was that I didn’t feel much solidarity with people who were already making quite a bit more than me. But part of it was that I just became accustomed to not following hockey. I found other interests and, by the time the NHL resumed games, I was no longer a consumer.

While I have no doubt that the producers (who assume the financial risk) are attempting to keep as much money for themselves as they can, so are the writers. I don’t know whether each side is being fairly compensated. But I do know that movies and television qualify as luxuries for most people compared to food, shelter, health care, and things like that. And I do know that the majority of people, even of Americans, have the perception that they have a lower standard of living than either the producers or the writers.

Whenever she discounts someone’s concern over some issue, my mother will say, “One billion Chinese don’t care”. Perhaps the WGA and AMPTP ought to consider the impact of a protracted work stoppage. I don’t know about the Chinese, but one billion Indians have a vibrant film industry that could easily take Hollywood’s customers.

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